All businesses need help in some form – be it in marketing, finance, or HR, yet many don’t have capacity for a full time person or they don’t have the finances to outsource to a specialist agency, so they end up trying to do too many things themselves, without the knowledge or experience. Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst saw this need and created a virtual outsourcing agency, Huckleberry Partners, spanning 12 countries to date. We spoke to them to find out how it started.

Can you tell us in a nutshell about your business offering?

Lizzie: Huckleberry Partners is a virtual community, delivering marketing, finance, HR and PA work to our clients, but without the need for a traditional office. Alex and I believe passionately that talented people can be trusted to work flexibly, whenever and wherever they choose if they are judged on their output. This trust has helped us build a really motivated team, and also attract some of incredible talent from around the world.  

Alex: Technology is key to what we do. We have over 100 associates based across 12 countries who have delivered projects for clients including The View from The Shard, Comic Relief and Danone. I’m a strong believer that forcing people to commute to an office on a daily basis is not the best way to foster creativity!

And where are you guys based?

Alex: Anywhere and everywhere! Although both Lizzie and I are based in London, our associates work all over the world, from Edinburgh to Bristol to Dubai, New York, Auckland, Perth and Singapore. We arrange monthly ‘Huckleberry Home’ days in areas where we have a big group of Huckleberries, where we rent a house or an inspiring space such as the converted church we recently visited. Huckleberries can come along to work from the location for the day, or just pop in for lunch or to meet other members of the community – it’s a great way of adding sociability to the working community.

Lizzie: Both Alex and I work from home, or each other’s homes, or various coffee shops depending on the WiFi! Huckleberry Partners means we’re no longer tied to one location. It also means we’re not tied to nine-to-five, which means I can pick my son up from nursery at three, work an hour or two in the evening, and that’s completely fine.

Tell us about your target audience? Did you see a particular gap in the market?

Alex: The quality and depth of talent in our community is essential to the success of Huckleberry Partners, so we want to make sure we attract the very best people to join us. We know there are lots of talented people for whom a regular nine-to-five job in the city just doesn’t work, and we’re here for them! It’s free to join, but we do have a very rigorous application process.

Lizzie: In turn, we can provide SMEs with access to this talent, and we curate the perfect team for their business needs, across marketing, finance, HR or PA areas. Attracting and retaining talented people on a traditional 37.5 hour employment contract is an outdated model and future generations will look back and wonder why we worked this way. Our community provides clients with access to exceptional people, delivering fantastic work and where they only pay for exactly the time they need, without needing to pay for big central overheads. We want to change the way SMEs think about growing their businesses  – investing in the delivery of high quality output rather than spending on the permanent placement of employees.

Why do you think your business is unique in the market?

Lizzie: Huckleberry Partners is a virtual community of talented and motivated individuals who are doing the work they love, on their terms – we don’t know of anyone else who is doing this on the scale we are, and who is founded with the purpose of allowing people to do what they love truly on their terms. Our talent pool is not restricted by the city we’re based in, or even the timezone – so that gives us huge scope to make sure we have the perfect people for the job.

Alex: We are an organisation that is created specifically to reward people for their output, regardless of their age, race or gender and without restrictions on when, where or how they work. That is hugely motivating for them and it shows in the quality and success of their work. We think we have the most motivated workforce in the world!

And how long have you been working on this project? Where would you say it is at present?

Alex: We launched Huckleberry Partners in May of this year and in six months we have attracted more than 250 people to apply to the community. We have won clients that include Quintessentially Lifestyle and Seabrook Crisps as well as startups like ‘Work, Me and the Baby’ who champion working parents as they transition in and out of the workplace – we particularly love working with clients whose values align with ours.

How are you funding this business?

Lizzie: Our business is funded only by the clients we have attracted, through our work and through the power of our community. We have great relationships with our clients and can build for the future with confidence that the community will generate lots of exciting new opportunities. Investment for growth is something that we are having some conversations about at the moment, as we are finding we need to scale to keep up with the growing number of applications.

And is this your first startup?

Alex: Huckleberry Partners is my first business but Lizzie founded her first business seven years ago and we have worked together for most of that time!

Lizzie: That’s right, Futureproof was my first venture, a marketing agency which is focussed towards (and remunerated by) delivering results. I believe that marketing should be seen as an investment and not a cost. Futureproof reinforces this belief by delivering highly creative campaigns with a proven ROI.

Tell us what makes you so passionate about this business?

Lizzie: I have always believed in flexible working, but when I had my son I met so many talented people who were having to compromise, or even give up, their careers in order to be able to spend the time they wanted with their families. I felt a great sense of injustice that anyone would have to do this. With leaps in technology and internet access everyone should be able to work around their hobbies, a family, philanthropy, or simply personal preferences in order to have their perfect workstyle.

Alex: I loathe office politics, especially the unspoken pressure of having to work more hours than your employment contract in order to succeed; it’s called presenteeism and it’s everywhere. Sending late night emails or arranging early morning meetings just to prove you are ‘hard at work’ doesn’t deliver results, so I was determined to create a business that rewards its people for the quality of their output, not how many hours they work or being at their desk at a certain time.

What about your personal backgrounds?

Lizzie: Before setting up Futureproof, I worked at Diageo managing iconic brands including Pimm’s, Smirnoff and Guinness, and before that worked at Sainsbury’s and Masterfoods, and I had always thought of myself as a big business person, until I saw a gap in the market for an effectiveness-focussed agency, and since then I have loved being an entrepreneur.

Alex: I have a degree in Product Design but most of my career has been in client-serving roles. Initially in the events industry where I managed the Garden Parties and Summer Openings for Buckingham Palace. After that, I moved into the creative industry at Futureproof which was a startup and where Lizzie and I met prior to setting up Huckleberry Partners.

startup alex lizzie

And your childhood backgrounds? Did either of you have any entrepreneurs in the family who influenced you?

Alex: My dad in particular has always been a big advocate for striking out on your own. He’s probably been the biggest influence on my entrepreneurial mentality.

Lizzie: My dad runs his own business and my siblings and I have always been encouraged to challenge the status quo and ask why things work the way they do, so looking back I think it was always on the cards that I would become an entrepreneur.

And do you have any hobby that you are passionate about? Do you think this has an influence on how you run this business?

Lizzie: My favourite way to unwind is playing with my son. I also love going for dinner with friends, or to the cinema, travelling and improving our house, which we have done up from scratch since we bought it six years ago – it’s been a great creative outlet.

Alex:  I enjoy watching sport on the TV and live whenever possible. I also enjoy playing it and talking about it. I am always inspired by what people have achieved. Whether they cooked our meal, built the museum or scored the winning goal it is the achievements of individuals that inspire me most.

Do either of you have a mentor or role model who has influenced you?

Alex: For me, Virgin is the benchmark and Richard Branson is an inspiration. The company put people at the heart of their decision making ‒ whether internally through policy-setting or externally in the provision of services. It is testament to the Virgin brand that in spite of having a dreadful personal experience with Virgin Media, I am still an advocate of the Virgin ethos.

Lizzie: Virgin for their paternity policy. Google for its perpetual innovation. Apple for making tech beautiful. I’m also inspired by lots of small businesses: Third Door who are facilitating working parents not needing to be too far from their children and Map Action who provide a little-known but vital support through mapping disaster areas. Anyone who stands for something, sets a purpose, and then will move mountains to achieve it inspires me.

Can you remember any particular event in your lives that happened in the past that sparked you to start the venture?

Alex: I read a Harvard Business Review article about peer-with-peer economies and it triggered a raft of ideas about how new working methods could improve lives. Huckleberry Partners brings together the best of those ideas.

Tell us about the most exciting or inspirational moment to date in running this business?  

Lizzie: Being at Huckleberry Homes are always hugely inspiring as are seeing the enjoyment the community get from our Slack channels – seeing the community interact with each other and build their own relationships within it is incredible. Collaboration from teams around the world to deliver fantastic output is also something that makes us fiercely proud.

What about the toughest moment? What lessons have you learnt down the line?

Alex: Right from the start we made the decision to build the business in beta. We have always been honest with the Huckleberries that we are taking a ‘test and learn’ approach where we trial new elements and approaches in order to continuously improve. We are doing something new in that we are totally virtual, so this is the only way to build the business.

Was there ever a weird moment where you felt like you are destined to do this?

Lizzie: Now we’re doing this it feels like we were always destined to do it. Alex and I have a shared passion for people, and the importance of fulfillment and living a balanced life that makes those people happy and motivated every day – we truly love what we do and want to change as many people’s lives as possible for them to feel the same.

What is your business goal for the next few years?

Lizzie: We are starting a movement that will drive fundamental changes in the way every business interacts with its employees, consultants or anything in between. We want to change the way people work and to encourage employers to at least question whether the age old nine-to-five is right for their industry or business.

Alex: I have a dream that one day the Huckleberry community will be used to curate a team of people to solve a global problem that would otherwise have been impossible because the combination of human skills required was so different. That is the aim, but to get there we must begin by establishing the community operating model as a viable alternative to traditional corporations. That and to free as many people as we possibly can from the drudgery of office politics!

And finally, what would the one bit of advice be that you would offer to someone starting their own business?

Alex: I think the first thing is to get a business partner; a problem shared is a problem halved and it’s a lonely life without one.

Lizzie: The most important thing for a business owner is to surround themselves with fantastic people who inspire them. We have been blown away by the calibre of applicants to join the Huckleberries, and especially with a business like ours we are defined by those within the Huckleberry world. They inspire us every day.